African Hunger Games at Camp David

Alemayehu G Mariam

fam1White House spokesman Jay Carney announced last week that President Obama has invited the presidents of Ghana, Tanzania, Benin and Meles Zenawi to attend the G8 Summit (the forum for the governments of eight of the world’s largest economies) for a discussion of food security on May 19 at Camp David (Presidential retreat) in Maryland. The U.S. has been handing out food aid to the African continent for decades. Now President Obama says there is another looming “food crises” in Africa. Oxfam says, “All signs point to a drought becoming a catastrophe if nothing is done soon.” The U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) has issued appeals for an extra $70 million to aid some 800,000 households in the drought-hit Sahel region in West Africa. Ethiopia and Somalia are expected to be ground zero for the anticipated famine. According to the April 25, 2012 report of the USAID-funded Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), southern Ethiopia will most likely experience famine: “The anticipated below-average rains will have significant negative impact on crop production, pasture regeneration, and the replenishment of water resources throughout the region, with the most severe and immediate impactin belg-dependent areas of southern Ethiopia.” Over the past couple or so years, I have written over one-half dozen commentaries on famine and food shortages in Ethiopia. (See links below.)

The Hunger Word Games in Ethiopia

Ethiopian governments  over the past four decades have blamed food shortages and famines on everything except their own indifference, incompetence and negligence. Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974 pretended there was no famine until “The Hidden Famine” by Jonathan Dimbleby was aired to a shocked and angry Ethiopian public. Former socialist junta leader Mengistu was arrogantly dismissive of the 1984-85 famine in which an estimated one million people perished. Mengistu would contemptuously respond to reporters by challenging them, “What famine?”

Zenawi is more clever than his predecessors. He plays public relations and semantic games with famine in the country. He will use any word, except the “F” word, to describe the chronic and massive food shortages in the country. For Zenawi there is “no famine in Ethiopia”, only “spot shortages,” “severe malnutrition”, “food insecurity”, “food crisis”, “serious drought” and so on. “Food shortages” are not the result of poor agricultural planning and practices, official incompetence, massive corruption, criminal negligence, etc., but are caused by “drought conditions,” “erratic rains” “damaged or delayed crops”, “deforestation”, “soil erosion,” “overgrazing” and other ecological factors. In January 2012, Zenawi once again denied famine in Ethiopia in a CNN interview: “Ethiopia is facing a major famine. How can you justify spending on a military operation in another country when your own people are starving?” Zenawi responded, “There is no famine in Ethiopia as all humanitarian organizations will tell you. There is a serious drought, but we are able to keep our people fed….”

The international poverty mongers/pimps (PMPs) have invented a “scientific” classification system for “food shortages” behind which Zenawi has been able to hide the true magnitude and severity of the problem in the country. The euphemisms of the PMPs avoid the “F” word altogether regardless of the extremity of the food shortage. For the PMPs the conditions fall into one of the following categories: “Acute Food Insecurity, Stressed, Crisis, Emergency and Catastrophe.” It is “scientifically” impossible to have famine in Africa! So the conspiracy of silence goes on to keep famine in Ethiopia hidden by clever use of masking euphemisms.

Zenawi and his top lieutenants have been promising to end “food shortages caused by drought” in a very short time. In 2009, Simon Mechale, head of the country’s “Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Agency”, proudly declared: “Ethiopia will soon fully ensure its food security.” For several years now, Zenawi has been advertising his “Productive Safety Net Programme” as the mechanism to end the “cycle of dependence on food aid” by bridging “production deficits and protecting household and community assets”.  In October 2011 Zenawi told his party faithful: “We have devised a plan which will enable us to produce surplus and be able to feed ourselves by 2015 without the need for food aid.” Zenawi’s “plan to produce surplus” is by “leasing” out millions of hectares of the country’s prime agricultural land to so-called international investors (land grabbers) whose only aim is to raise crops for export.  Ethiopia will produce food to feed other nations while Ethiopians starve. Zenawi has adamantly opposed private ownership of land, which by all expert accounts is the single most important factor in ensuring food security in any nation. Yet last year, food inflation in Ethiopia remained at 47.4  percent.

Food has been used as a political weapon in Ethiopia.  Hunger has been the new weapon of choice to generate support for Zenawi’s regime and to decimate his political rivals. Zenawi has been pretty successful in crushing the hearts, minds and spirits of the people by keeping their stomachs empty.  Those who oppose Zenawi’s regime are not only denied humanitarian food and relief aid, they are also victimized through a system of evictions, denial of land or reduction in plot size as well as denial of access to loans, fertilizers, seeds, etc. In the case of the people of Gambella in western Ethiopia, entire communities have been forced off the land to make way for Indian “investors” in violation of international conventions that protect the rights of indigenous peoples. Human Rights Watch, among other organizations, has raised serious concerns over the misuse of humanitarian food aid: “The Ethiopian government is routinely using access to aid as a weapon to control people and crush dissent. If you don’t play the ruling party’s game, you get shut out. Without effective, independent monitoring, international aid will continue to be abused to consolidate a repressive single-party state.” In 2009, U.S. State Department promised to investigate allegations that “$850 million in food and anti-poverty aid from the U.S. is being distributed on the basis of political favoritism by the current prime minister’s party.” No report has been issued.

In 2011, U.S. Census Bureau made the frightening prediction that Ethiopia’s population by 2050 will more than triple to 278 million. Ethiopia’s chronic “food insecurity” is expected to get increasingly worse culminating in a “Malthusian catastrophe” (where disease, starvation, war, etc. will reduce the population to the level of food production) in the foreseeable future. Zenawi’s regime has failed to implement a national family planning program which will avert such a catastrophe.

Famine in Ethiopia is Ninety Percent Man-Made

In 2011, Wolfgang Fengler, a lead economist for the World Bank, in a refreshingly honest moment  for an international banker said, “The famine in the Horn of Africa is a result of artificially high prices for food and civil conflict than natural and environmental causes. This crisis is manmade. Droughts have occurred over and again, but you need bad policymaking for that to lead to a famine.” In other words, it is bad and poor governance that is at the core of the famine problem in Ethiopia, not drought or other environmental causes.   Penny Lawrence, Oxfam’s international director, after visiting Ethiopia observed: “Drought does not need to mean hunger and destitution. If communities have irrigation for crops, grain stores, and wells to harvest rains then they can survive despite what the elements throw at them.” Martin Plaut, BBC World Service News Africa editor explains that the “current [Ethiopian food] crisis is in part the result of policies designed to keep farmers on the land, which belongs to the state and cannot be sold.” So the obvious questions are: Why does a regime that has rejected socialism and is presumably committed to a free market economy insist on complete state ownership of land? Why is there not an adequate system of irrigation for crops, grain storages and wells to harvest rains throughout the country? Does Zenawi really have a food security policy for the country?

The Hunger Games at Camp David

After four decades at the humanitarian food aid trough, it is unlikely that Ethiopia will achieve food security even in the distant future. President Obama is rightly concerned over the “food shortages” in the Horn and the Sahel in the coming year. Last month, the United States pledged to provide  nearly $200 million in additional humanitarian aid to the Horn in anticipation of “poor rains and drought”. In 2011, the U.S. provided over $1.1 billion in humanitarian aid to Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia.

On May 19, President Obama and the G8 leaders will have to face some tough  questions: What is the  moral hazard of endlessly supplying food relief to the Horn countries? Why should the world continue to help a country that leases millions of hectares of the most fertile land in the country and become the breadbasket for India and the Middle East while its people are starving? Why should the world provide food aid to a country when the ruling regime weaponizes the aid to decimate opposition, crush the democratic aspirations of the people and flagrantly violate human rights? Does aiding dictators who use food aid for political purposes end famine and food shortages in Africa?

The G8 leaders can talk about “food shortages” until the cows come home, but the answer to famine in Ethiopia and in the Horn is not never ending handouts to starving populations and free lunches to panhandling dictators. Handouts create a moral hazard of negative dependency by recipients which incapacitates them from fending for themselves. Zenawi and the other African dictators have no incentive to address the “food shortage” issue because they are absolutely and positively sure that the U.S. and other G8 countries will ALWAYS deliver humanitarian food aid to their starving populations year after year. As a world leader, the U.S. has a moral obligation to provide humanitarian food aid to famine victims; but it also has the moral responsibility of leveraging the billions in handouts (development aid, loans from the multilateral institutions and budget support payments) to dictators to promote democracy, human rights and rule of law in Africa.

In May 2010, Zenawi’s party won 99.6 percent of the seats in parliament. Despite two decades of one-party domination, Zenawi has not been able to do much to address the structural problem of food insecurity in the country. But he has been blowing his horn about bogus stratospheric economic growth. Ethiopians suffer from chronic food shortages and famine because they lack a political  framework that can deal effectively with the problem. The Indian economics Nobel laureate Amartya Sen argued that the best way to avert famines is by institutionalizing democracy and strengthening human rights: “No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy” because democratic governments “have to win elections and face public criticism, and have strong incentive to undertake measures to avert famines and other catastrophes.” Famines are kept hidden from public view by jailing opposition leaders, journalists and civic society advocates who could sound the alarm over an impending famine.

What Should the U.S. Do for Ethiopia?

All the U.S. needs to do for Ethiopia is practice what it preaches. In 2009 in Accra, Ghana President Obama preached:

Development depends on good governance. History offers a clear verdict: Governments that respect the will of their own people, that govern by consent and not coercion, are more prosperous, they are more stable, and more successful than governments that do not. No country is going to create wealth if its leaders exploit the economy to enrich themselves. No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not democracy, that is tyranny. And now is the time for that style of governance to end…. In the 21st century, capable, reliable, and transparent institutions are the key to success — strong parliaments; honest police forces; independent judges; an independent press; a vibrant private sector; a civil society. Those are the things that give life to democracy, because that is what matters in people’s everyday lives…. History is on the side of these brave Africans, not with those who use coups or change constitutions to stay in power. Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions. With better governance, I have no doubt that Africa holds the promise of a broader base of prosperity…. 

Listening to Zenawi plead for more aid before the G8 to deal with the looming  “food crises” (but “no famine”) is like listening to the man who killed his parents and asked for leniency from the court because he is an orphan. Now that’s chutzpah!

Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at:

Previous commentaries by the author are available at:  and

Author’s prior commnetaries  on famine in Ethiopia:

The “Silently” Creeping Famine:

What Should the World Do To Save Starving Ethiopians?

Why are Ethiopians Starving Again in 2011?

“Famine and the Noiseome Beast”                                    

Ethiopia: Apocalypse Now or in 40 Years?

Ethiopia: Starve the Beast, Feed the People!

Ethiopia: Meles Zenawi and the Weaponization of Famine


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